WASHINGTON — Michael Harris II has not stepped from the realm of his imagination into an unbelievable reality. But you can’t blame him if it feels that way sometimes.
As a child growing up in Decatur, Georgia, Harris idolized Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones and the Atlanta Braves. Now, he generates comparisons to them.
As a high school senior in 2019, reigning Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuña Jr. was his favorite player in the game. Now, he roams center field in Atlanta alongside him.
And as the Braves’ top prospect in 2021, Harris watched not as a potential colleague but rather with the fervency of a fan as Atlanta rolled through the playoffs and captured its first World Series title since 1995, six years before Harris was born.
Even then, it did not dawn on Harris that he might be next on that stage, that at age 21 he would join a flagging team in danger of seeing its chances to repeat dissipate and inject it with a five-tool talent that leaves teammates agape and his own Rookie of the Year trophy awaiting.
Yet this weekend, when the Braves host the New York Mets in the major leagues’ biggest regular season series of the year, it is Harris, 21, who will be in the meat of the Braves lineup, chasing down drives in the gaps, the man Atlanta fans and teammates alike might most want to see with a bat in his hands in a crucial moment.
It is the best-case scenario that Braves officials envisioned for Harris. It came so stunningly that everyone’s a little bit taken aback, including the kid taken in the third round of the 2019 draft out of an Atlanta-area high school.
“It’s still surreal,” says Harris, who had only reached high Class A when the Braves plowed through the playoff field last October and beat the Houston Astros in six games of the World Series. “I wasn’t even thinking about myself as a player. I was just being a fan and enjoying the process they went through. Winning the World Series, I was excited as a fan.
“And then I remembered I was part of the organization and that I could eventually be a part of it someday.”
Someday came stunningly fast.
This weekend, the Braves (97-59) will face the Mets (98-58) for three games at Truist Park, chasing a one-game deficit but knowing a sweep will give them both the division lead and the tiebreaker with three games remaining. It is not the ideal scenario for the four-time defending champions, but it is a far cry from May 28, when the Braves fell to 22-25 and 8 ½ games behind the Mets.
But that was the day Harris made his debut, and Atlanta has gone 75-34 since, and those developments are far from coincidental.
“Man, that kid is special,” says Braves closer Kenley Jansen. “That’s all I can say. Good lord. The way he moves in the outfield, how he’s putting his at-bats together for the first year in the big leagues – that’s a superstar in the making.
“Probably already a superstar.”
‘My God, he’s just a young guy still’
The assessment checks out, whether you prefer statistical evidence, advanced metrics or simply anecdotal data or the old eye test.
In a year in which Major League Baseball should have its lowest batting average (.243) since 1967 and lowest OPS (.708) since 2014 Harris is performing beyond All-Star level, batting .305 with an .875 OPS; his adjusted OPS is a startling 142. His next home run will give him 20 homers and 20 stolen bases in barely 400 at-bats, just the second National League rookie to produce a 20-20 season.
Harris was perfect on his first 16 stolen-base attempts, and his speed, expert route-running and sixth-sense feel around the wall already make him one of the game’s best defensive center fielders. He ranks seventh in outs above average, a remarkable rating given his late start and the statistic’s cumulative nature.
Put another way:
“It’s not fair for him to compare him to Andruw Jones,” says Jansen, who like Jones hails from Curacao, “because Andruw Jones is special. But to see how close he is to him and what he is doing out there – how he covers the ground – is special, man.”
Jones is Atlanta royalty, probably better known for how shallow he could play in center field and make up the ground behind him than he was for slugging 434 home runs. Harris is just getting started, yet he has folded easily into a star-studded Atlanta team that needed a jolt after the departure of slugger Freddie Freeman.
Harris is among eight Braves who have hit at least 15 home runs. Unsurprisingly, he batted ninth in 58 of his first 59 career starts, but has climbed the ladder since, until this week at Washington he batted fourth in one game, third another.
A likely preview of the rest of this decade.
“I see him, down the road, as a top-four guy,” says Braves manager Brian Snitker. “Probably a two or three, I’d think.”
Forget the logistics and mention the tools, and the normally taciturn Snitker lets down his guard.
“The power. The raw power. My god, he’s just a young guy still,” says Snitker. “Honestly, I didn’t know the arm was such a weapon. I didn’t think he’d run like that. People said, you gotta see this kid play center field. The total package is just…We all loved him in spring training.
“But you see the total package, and man, it’s pretty special.”
‘He gets it’
The Braves will reap the benefits. Less than three months after his debut, the club signed Harris to an eight-year, $72 million deal, guaranteeing him $18 million in salary during what would have been his first three full seasons while maintaining his rights through at least two free agent years.
“It relieves a lot of pressure, just knowing you have your future secured,” says Harris, “just knowing I’ll be a Brave for however long and knowing I’ll have something financially to secure me just relieves a lot.”
Harris carries his own aspirations along with those of his father, who was a versatile star at Alcorn State in the 1980s but who did not gain traction professionally. “He didn’t hold that against anybody,” says Harris. “He just gave all the ability to me, I guess.”
Harris does not take for granted the gifts nor the benefits. Earlier this month, he donated $23,000 to support clean water initiatives in Jackson, Mississippi, where he began this season with the Braves’ Class AA affiliate.
“I have a lot of things that go through my head that I’d like to do for the community,” he says. “With the water, I was in Jackson for a minute. It was kind of my home for a little while. To give back, I didn’t think it was huge, but me being there for a while and calling it home – water is a big part of a lot of peoples’ lives.
“I just hope it was used the right way and got to the right people.”
Says Jansen: “I can tell that his family raised him really well. He’s just a humble kid, man, and he gets it.”
The days are waning in Harris’ rookie season, but the accolades will stick to him a while. Soon, he’ll exceed 5 wins above replacement, displacing Rico Carty’s 1963 campaign as the best rookie year in franchise history. Harris totes a .395 batting average with runners in scoring position, the best in the majors among those with at least 350 at-bats.
October will provide its own platform, when the games get tighter, big defensive plays are magnified, franchise lore is established.
This time, as if he’s broken the fourth wall, it is Harris on the stage, not wondering about a World Series but possibly participating.
“Now I’m on the team and we’re about to go to the playoffs and we’re hoping to do that again this year,” he says. “It’s kind of crazy growing up being a fan of this organization my whole life and knowing a lot of these players, not personally, but just watching.
“Getting to know them personally you really get to know a lot about them.”
And this October, we’ll learn a lot more about Harris.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Braves rookie Michael Harris II went from an to NL East fixture